Utah drops case against polygamist sect leader

Associated Press/November 9, 2011

Salt Lake City -- Utah prosecutors dropped charges Wednesday against a polygamist sect leader because he is already serving a life sentence in Texas in a separate case.

Warren Jeffs had been found guilty of rape by accomplice -- a 2007 conviction that was overturned last year by the Utah Supreme Court, which cited improper jury instructions by the trial judge.

"As a result of the conviction in Texas, we decided not to bring him back to Utah for a re-trial," said Brian Filter, senior deputy attorney for Washington County.

Jeffs, 55, is the ecclesiastical head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was sentenced to life in prison in August on charges of sexually assaulting two of his underage brides.

The Utah case charged Jeffs with arranging an under-aged marriage involving Elissa Wall, who wrote a book about her experience. Jeffs had been accused of presiding over the marriage, and the two felony charges of rape by accomplice involving Jeffs were the result of sexual encounters with a husband she said she didn't want to marry.

The extent of Jeff's liability complicated jury instructions and all but defeated any retrial, prosecutors said. Defense lawyers said the rape-by-accomplice charges were a misfit from the start.

"This was a hard decision for everybody involved and bittersweet for me," Wall told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "I was in agreement. We all had a piece to play in the puzzle of Warren Jeffs, and Utah did a fantastic job. It was the best decision for all parties involved."

Her former husband, Allen Steed, pleaded guilty in February to solemnization of a prohibited marriage -- Wall was 14 at the time -- and is serving 36 months' probation, Filter said.

Jeffs faces no other charges in Utah.

The decision to drop the case was made with the assent of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"The Utah Supreme Court made it difficult to proceed," Shurtleff spokesman Paul Murphy said. "But he's going to spend life in prison. There was not a lot to gain in the case."

Earlier this week in Texas, another high-ranking member of the church was convicted of presiding over Jeff's marriage to a 12-year-old girl.

Fredrick Merril Jessop, 75, received the maximum sentence from a West Texas jury. He was found guilty Monday of performing an illegal wedding ceremony.

That case grew out of a raid at the sect's Yearning for Zion ranch in 2008. Authorities gathered a trove of evidence they used to bring charges against Jessop, Jeffs and 10 other followers.

Jeffs was sentenced to life imprisonment in August after prosecutors used DNA evidence to show he fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl prosecutors say he took as one of his spiritual wives.

In September, Jeffs filed a handwritten motion seeking a new trial. He alleged that his religious freedoms were violated by the courts -- an argument he also tried to make while defending himself during his trial.

Jeffs is scheduled to go on trial on bigamy charges in February in San Angelo.

He was initially assigned to a state prison about 100 miles southeast of Dallas to serve his life sentence for sexually assaulting underage girls. On Aug. 28, about three weeks after his conviction, he told corrections officers he had been fasting since the end of his trial and was ill. He then was taken to the Tyler hospital, about 45 miles from his prison before his transfer to the prison hospital.

That hospital shares quarters with the University of Texas Medical Branch, the Texas prison system's chief medical provider.

This was not the first time Jeffs has required hospitalization in the years since he first was locked up.

He tried to hang himself in January 2007 while awaiting trial on rape charges in Utah, according to court documents. He also threw himself against the walls of his cell and banged his head, although he later told a mental health expert he really wasn't trying to kill himself. Around the same time, he was hospitalized for dehydration and depression.

In 2009, he was temporarily force-fed while in an Arizona jail.

Former church members have said Jeffs likely would continue to lead his Utah-based church from inside prison and that his followers likely still revere him as a prophet despite the considerable evidence at his trial showing he sexually assaulted young girls.

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